muslims, politics, war on terror

Stingray cellphone-snooping technology needs regulation

Published by CBC News on June 6th, 2016

The Liberal Party has promised parliamentary oversight for Canada’s national intelligence agencies, but the issue of policing and surveillance overreach isn’t just a national problem. It’s a municipal one too, as a recent example concerning gang members in Toronto has proved. About 40 members of the Asian Assassinz gang and a rival crew are on trial, and their lawyers have received an internal RCMP memo proving that police in Canada have used Stingray devices to track and locate suspects’ cellphones.

One major problem is that these Stingrays, or International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI)-catchers, can disrupt and block innocent third-party phone calls made within a certain vicinity. The device mimics cellphone towers and is supposed to attract signals from the suspected parties’ mobile devices, thus allowing the police to tag and perhaps bug the phones later on. But they can also attract signals from phones in the area being used by innocent bystanders. The devices are also supposed to deactivate when coming into contact with 911 calls, but this doesn’t always happen. Defence lawyers are now hoping to put the use of IMSI devices on trial, alleging that it breaks the law by disrupting the public airwaves, and thus infringes on the rights of their clients.

Public should have been informed

The 1985 Radio-Communications Act prohibits incursions on the public airwaves, particularly intrusions that interfere with people’s calls. Yet even the Toronto police have acknowledged that IMSI devices can violate this law, which is why the plan, according to Toronto police Det. Shingo Tanabe in a sworn affidavit related to the Asian Assassinz case, was to limit the use of such devices to three-minute intervals and to steer clear of those trying to call 911.

Citing logs of devices used in the case, defence lawyers are arguing that the police didn’t even adhere to their own rules. According to these lawyers, IMSI devices were used for more than three minutes at a time, thus increasing the chances of serious interference with the airwaves. This kind of use can carry a prison sentence, and it’s not clear yet whether police are exempt from the rules.

More frustrating for the general public is the denial on the part of the Toronto police when asked last year by the media if they were operating with IMSI devices. They arrested the gang members back in 2014, but said last December that, “We do not use the Stingray technology and do not have one.” This conveniently glossed over the fact that Toronto police brought in an RCMP officer who assisted in the case by using a Stingray device.

It’s clear by now that the police focus on catching their suspects prompted them to use methods that jeopardized the public’s safety, in addition to essentially misleading the public into thinking they didn’t even have the tools to pursue such methods.

Impossible to regulate what you don’t know

The document received by the defence that illustrates the use of IMSI technology was disclosed to them by the RCMP, and is a 2011 internal memo that actually warns officers how such devices can break the law. To steer clear of such illegal activity, the memo suggests that officers limit the use of IMSI devices in a way that doesn’t jeopardize public safety. It’s at best unclear whether Toronto police took real precautions to regulate themselves, and the defence alleges there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the contrary.

In fact, federal officers have been using IMSI technology since 2005. Yet only because of media investigations and court documentation related to the Asian Assassinz case, along with another organized crime case in Quebec, has information about the police use of such technology made its way to the public. Prior to the past few months, only police and judges who issued warrants knew about the police’s use of these devices.

How will policy-makers and legislators decide what place this kind of technology has in Canada  if they are kept in the dark? The Toronto police remain reticent on the matter, and, depending on how the Asian Assassinz case unfolds in court, the legality of IMSI devices is likely to be called into question, which will be a real blow to those who want to put the gangsters behind bars. However, that the police used this technology extensively in the first place, without proper oversight, is further evidence that Canada’s post-Sept. 11 policing and surveillance needs plenty of regulation.

Elected officials, particularly those in the Liberal Party who now make up a parliamentary majority, supported hard-core security legislation — Bill C-51, in particular — partly by way of promising that they will apply the right kinds of oversight to intelligence-gathering. But the Toronto case has essentially proved that even they haven’t figured out exactly what they’re supposed to be regulating — let alone how.

Photo credit: L’Enfant Metro Station/CC

[http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/stingray-cellphone-imsi-technology-rights-1.3618075]

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middle east, muslims, politics

The Meaning of “Mecca_live”

Published by The Islamic Monthly on August 6th, 2015

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly known for its openness. The powerful Saudi monarchy, which exercise significant regional and global influence, are heads of a state that has yet to address a number of critical human rights problems afflicting its society, and thus drawing criticism the world over. Saudi Arabia has long been a natural point of reference for those concerned with the implementation unreasonably punitive practices in the modern world.

Yet, in an ironic twist, the kingdom was involved a rather unlikely event this July when Snapchat, the popular online video-sharing platform, decided to focus their popular “Live Story” feature on the city of Mecca, Islam’s most important and holiest geographical site. Since its introduction last year, the feature splices together users’ submitted videos of a particular place into a single video comprised of the best footage. The Mecca “Live Story” video showed Muslims of all backgrounds inside Mecca at various stages of their visit, providing a rare glimpse of what actually happens inside the city to non-Muslims, who cannot enter.

The subsequent online response to Snapchat’s decision was significant and overwhelmingly positive. For a brief while, Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a stagnant theocracy was eclipsed by the prevailing sensation that used video and social media to narrate lived Islam into many people’s consciousness. That this act of online openness occurred inside a monarchy known, among other things, for not allowing women to drive, illuminates the dislocations between Saudi Arabia’s image and its actual reality.

Things become a lot clearer when one sees that Snapchat’s decision to feature Mecca was prompted primarily by a huge online campaign that essentially lobbied the social media giant to feature Islam’s holiest city. The campaign took place during Ramadan, when millions of worshippers flock to Mecca to perform Umrah, which is similar to the Hajj pilgrimage, but can be made anytime of the year. 300,000 people tweeted Snapchat with the hashtag “Mecca_live” in an effort to have Mecca featured on “Live Story.” Millions of Muslims and non-Muslims then tweeted their appreciation to Snapchat afterwards, thanking the video platform for essentially live-streaming the joyous atmosphere inside the city.

Ahmed’s Attempt

Like most campaigns and initiatives, the idea to launch something special usually starts within the mind of an individual. This seems especially true for online campaigns involving social media, and the “Mecca_live” sensation is a good example. Enter Ahmed Aljbreen, a young Saudi digital entrepreneur and founder of Smaat Co., one of the country’s largest social media marketing companies. Days into Ramadan 2015, he had a wild thought that, as it turns out, wasn’t all that wild after all.

“The whole thing really began when I though that we need to convey that Islam is a peaceful religion to the younger generation,” Aljbreen says in an interview. “I think that Snapchat is the best medium to reach out to them anywhere in the world.” He says that the onus is now on Muslims, especially the youth who’re familiar with social media, to help reduce the world’s confusions and misconceptions of Islam.

Indeed, the day-to-day news cycle seems filled with reports of groups like ISIS, along with acts of political violence and turmoil involving Muslims—a mainstay of “national security reporting” in the post-9/11 era. Yet the advent of this kind of reporting hasn’t led to a better understanding of Muslims, and certainly not of Islam itself. If anything, many people have come to to link Islam with violence with limited critical inquiry, having been bombarded with reports that directly or indirectly feature Islam as a willing partner of ideological violence. This is despite the fact that Muslims account for only a fraction of terrorism across the world when it comes to the body count.

This gulf in perception is what Aljbreen, a businessman in the world of digital media, is so well placed to address.

After the initial thought, he decided to reach out to his contacts in the region’s social media scene, hoping to get them on board to convince Snapchat to feature Mecca on the 27th day of Ramadan (July 13th, 2015), which many believe to be Lailat al-Qadr, the day when the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelations from God. He expected to get a sizeable reaction, but not a full-blown global response, which was what ensued. Snapchat eventually responded by posting a 6-minute video of spliced videos on July 13th.

“I was surprised about how big the campaign ballooned,” Aljbreen says. “Muslims from Pakistan, Indonesia and everywhere ended up participating.”

Equally surprising to him has been the response by people around the world who saw the “Mecca_live” video. He says that before long, “Mecca_live” was trending at #1 on Twitter, and the total views of the clip have reached over 10 million, “by far.”

“The big lesson here is that we can do it again,” Aljbreen says, “and we are looking to repeat this duing hajj.” Whether he succeeds in creating another global social media phenomenon is debatable, but what Aljbreen helped pull off illuminates a broader picture of what’s happening across the region in terms of how media is being used. The Arab Spring unfolded for many through the lens of outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and a new generation of saavy individuals like Aljbreen is starting to use these tools to change the how their country, religion, and lives are being perceived on a global level.

Changing Imagery

Aljbreen’s parents wasn’t thrilled at all when he decided to leave his job as a communications engineer in order to start his own digital media company, Smaat around five years ago. Social media as a marketing tool was still a somewhat novel idea in Saudi Arabia at the time, and Aljbreen would become one of the first entrepreneurs to test the waters.

“They didn’t support my venture when I first started the business, especially since we were the first company in the regional market to focus on social media marketing campaigns,” he says. “But they changed their minds when they saw my success and at least they get to follow me on social media now to keep an eye on me.”

His company has since done digital marketing for some major regional companies, and the success of “Mecca_live” has significantly reinforced Aljbreen’s belief in social media’s power to change global perceptions. He says that videos like “Mecca_live” are “thousands of times” more powerful and influential in terms of the effect they have on viewers, and that videos produced by major corporate media outlets just don’t come off as persuasive and authentic.

He also notes that Snapchat is probably the best medium when it comes to reaching large numbers of people with a single message. The world has moved from being print-based to being image-based, and is now arguably much more video-based than anything else. The “Mecca_live” video showed Muslims of different backgrounds in ways that humanized them, which is the clip’s implicit purpose. It counters over a decade of imagery associating Muslims with violence and deviance. If fear is the underlying meta-narrative that underpins the post-9/11 era, then the “Mecca_live” video is certainly one of humanization.

One video is certainly not enough to change years entrenched perceptions, but it’s a start. In fact, Aljbreen claims that around 20,000 people have embraced Islam as their religion after seeing the video.

That Saudi Arabia played host in many ways to the “Mecca_live” phenomenon begs the question of whether the state had anything to do with the entire episode. When the question was put to Aljbreen, he replied simply by saying that “It [“Mecca_Live”] was a community-driven initiative.”

Regardless, the power of social media to effect social change in a way that alters global perceptions is certainly a potential that the Saudi Arabian government is aware of. Despite the great opening up that Aljbreen initiated, the irony is that the country within which he lives and where the holy city of Mecca is located in, has some of the more draconian media laws on earth.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Saudi Arabia at 164th out of 180 countries in their 2015 World Press Freedom Index. The country has virtually complete control over the press, though reported news and views can be found online. Still, Internet news-making it is closely monitored by the regime, and Reporters Without Borders lists the Saudi state as an “Enemy of the Internet.”

This is the political backdrop that Aljbreen’s generation is working with, and whether his optimism in terms of using social media to change international attitudes can carry over to effect his own country’s circumstances is at best debatable. Nonetheless, “Mecca_live” is further proof that a new generation of online-saavy Muslims, many who reside within societies with minimal personal freedoms, are beginning to effect global reality by changing global perceptions. In which direction this generational change will develop is really anyone’s guess.

Photo credit: Praying at Arafat by Omar Chatriwala/CC

[http://theislamicmonthly.com/the-meaning-of-mecca_live/]

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middle east, muslims, politics, war on terror

Calls for Islamic reform are misguided

Published by Al Jazeera America on June 22nd, 2015

Few debates in the post-9/11 era enjoy as much longevity and controversy as those concerning the responsibility of the Islamic tradition to mend its ways. For example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and other writers have demanded Islamic reform as the most reliable solution to achieving harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims. Ali’s latest book, “Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” lays out an agenda for this cause. Her main arguments rest on dual assumptions about what Islam is and the actual meaning of reform in the Islamic context.

These calls for reform presuppose that Islam is fundamentally violent, sadistic and misogynistic. And it prescribes a global movement to overhaul and rid Islam of its dark foundations.

This is not an entirely new proposition. During the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, German theologianMartin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of a church castle in Wittenberg. The move was emblematic of a popular sentiment to denounce clerical abuses within the Catholic Church at the time. Luther’s actions have since become a symbol of how organized religion can be undermined in order to open up clerical structures to scrutiny. Luther advocated for a Christianity that moved away from the traditional Catholic clerical class that was charged with interpreting the scripture for the layman.

Ali and other critics the Muslim faith contend that the same process must be applied to Islam. Never mind that the dizzying array of Protestant sects (let alone the rest of the world’s religions) has hardly been free from clerical abuses, institutional corruption, violence and illiberal views. Reform proponents say that the Muslim layperson should be allowed to interpret the Quran in ways that circumvent Islamic clerics, who they see as the irrational, bearded men who uphold a medieval understanding of Islam that encourages the beating of women by their husbands and the killing of non-Muslims in religious wars.

This is of course far from an accurate interpretation of Islam, and critics such as Ali do not present an adequate understanding of Islamic jurisprudence (an area of study with more than 1000 years of written history) in any of their works. Over a millennium of debate, interpretation and re-interpretation has produced what scholars such as Hamza Yusuf call the “normative” Islamic tradition. Within the Sunni tradition, differences based on differing philosophical views surely exist, but more importantly, a cohesive picture of the religion has emerged. There are things that the vast majority of those who have spent their whole lives studying Islamic scripture agree on, regardless of their individual theological approach. For instance, a good number of these scholars got together last year to write an open letter to the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), condemning his actions. This is because they collectively agree that ISIL is in fact acting in a terribly un-Islamic fashion. Instead of trying to get to know what the normative Sunni positions look like on different issues, caricatures supported by decontextualized verses from the Quran, along with personal anecdotes of misconduct by Muslims, are put forth as evidence of Islam’s moral degeneracy by Ali and allied critics.

Such commentators try to get away with bashing what they don’t bother to understand. What’s more, “reform” advocates ignore an important part of Islamic history: Its own reformation took place in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. However, much like the protestant reformation, efforts to overhaul Islam did not produce a liberal utopia with democratic norms and behaviors — quite the contrary.

This particular reform movement bears striking similarities to its Protestant counterpart. For example, it looks to steer away from dominant orthodoxy, but in a way that “returns” the religion to its true roots, stripped of extraneous innovations that the movement’s vanguard thought were incompatible with the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad. As with the protestant reformation, however, Wahhabism, named after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, one of the key proponents of the Islamic reform, set the stage for a sectarian bloodletting in its geographical region, which later became Saudi Arabia.

Muslim scholars have long created systems of looking at scripture to prevent the kind of sectarian strife brought about by Wahhabism. As a result, Islamic orthodoxy, as represented by a normative system of jurisprudence and interpretation, is much more stable than willy-nilly calls for reformation. This orthodoxy is made up of four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, each with different approaches and conclusions, while also recognizing the others’ legitimacy.

Authors such as Ali ignore these nuances and checks and balances in favor of fear-mongering over practices such as sectarian violence and female genital mutilation (FGM) that orthodox Muslim scholars reject. Nevertheless, the lopsided criticism has given detractors a platform for bashing Islam and self-aggrandizement. For example, Ali’s foundation recently received a $100,000 pledge from Google’s boss Eric Schmidt to eradicate FGM.

Ali-style criticism of Islamic orthodoxy lacks a genuine understanding of how Muslim scholars have approached scriptural interpretation. It displays no interest in surveying the differences of opinion available on certain issues, or how different scholars come to such conclusions. Yet the reading of scripture isn’t the same as reading a newspaper, which is meant for everyone. Interpreting scripture requires a religious knowledge that is supposed to prevent destructive frameworks such as unnecessary literalism.

The post-9/11 public is in dire need of an informed debate about Islam and Islamic jurisprudence. Misinformed screeds such as Ali’s “Heretic” do nothing to propel such a debate.

Photo: Ayaan Hirsi Ali (right) on stage with Sam Harris (left), leading “New Atheist.”

[http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/6/calls-for-islamic-reformation-are-misguided.html]

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

ISIS: Prime Minister Harper’s top political bogeyman of the day

Published by the CBC on April 7th, 2015

Canada is ready to extend its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) into Syria, carrying on a war that’ll cost about half-a-billion taxpayer dollars by early next year. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is following up on his promise that Canada won’t “stand on the sidelines” when it comes to the fight against Muslim extremism.

This kind of rhetoric has helped make ISIS into Canada’s top political bogeyman as the Tory administration insists on adopting tough security measures at home as Canadian Forces fight the bad guys abroad.

The public language in support of this two-front “war on terror” has given rise to a new kind of militarism in Canada. It’s characterized by a political rhetoric that galvanizes support for itself not only by pointing to a foreign enemy, but also by emphasizing the need to root out the enemy’s ideological supporters on Canadian soil.

This latter emphasis has, at the hands of the Tories, become a way to depict dissent against government policy as support for Muslim terrorism.

Support for terrorism

Take the debate around Bill C-51 (the “Anti-terrorism Act”), the Conservative’s proposal on how to fight domestic terrorism. The bill is making its way through the legislative process with limited debate and examination, despite containing provisions that will, according to a chorus of critics, forever change the landscape of Canadian national security. Its supporters emphasize the imminent nature of an ill-defined terrorism threat, keeping in mind that security issues will likely occupy the minds of voters in the upcoming fall election.

This process is now essentially an exploitation of the current climate of fear engendered primarily by images of ISIS’s bloody exploits, combined with memories of recent, high-profile incidents of violent extremism in cities like OttawaSydney, and Paris. It is a convergence of the foreign and domestic policy agendas in a way that casts “Muslim terror” as the enemy, often without bothering to differentiate between Islam’s peaceful followers and those who have been radicalized.

This monolithic representation is calculated to yield political results. A recent poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute shows that 44 per cent of participating Canadians hold a “negative” view of Muslims. This kind of public opinion should give confidence to those who want to use unsubstantiated accusations and assertions to malign Muslims for political gain.

No niqab

Harper’s hardline stance against allowing Muslim women to wear the face-veil (niqab) during citizenship ceremonies is just one case-in-point. Without acknowledging that the niqab isn’t even a universally accepted concept within Islam, the prime minister said in the House of Commons last month that the practice is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women.”

He didn’t bother to clarify which culture he had in mind, leaving it up to the public imagination to decide what he was implying. Days later, Tory MP Larry Miller had to publicly apologize after he told women who wear the niqab to “stay the hell where you came from” on a radio show.

Still more ridiculous is Defence Minister Jason Kenney’s decision to use International Women’s Day to tweet what he claimed are photographs of women being led off in chains by ISIS.

It was later revealed that the photos had nothing to do with ISIS, and were actually depictions of Shia Muslims commemorating the death of the Prophet’s family in a ceremony.

 Muddying the Waters

This kind of political messaging and decision-making helps to confuse the already-unclear public representation of Canadian Muslims and their beliefs. Nonetheless, it’s the kind of confusion that allows those within the Muslim community who question the government’s security policies to be easily antagonized.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) got a taste of this during last month’s borderline-farcical parliamentary hearings on Bill C-51, when executive director Ihsaan Gardee had to reply to Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy’s question of whether his group supports terrorism.

Ablonczy was referring to an unsubstantiated rumour, but she succeeded in turning the nature and focus of the discussion away from Bill C-51’s more problematic provisions. Instead, Muslims like Gardee are forced to defend against a process that seeks to represent their community in a way that places them within the ideological orbit of groups like ISIS.

Political language that demonizes an entire segment of the domestic population is helping to reinforce the Tories’ pro-war rhetoric against ISIS, and vice-versa. These parallel narratives have increasingly given rise to the most recent form of Canadian militarism, a jingoistic aggression that uses racial bullying at home to bolster support for questionable foreign interventions.

Photo credit: The niqab has become a political wedge issue in Canada/CC

[http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/isis-prime-minister-harper-s-top-political-bogeyman-of-the-day-1.3023753]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Conservatives resort to McCarthyism as criticism of Bill C-51 escalates

Published on March 21st, 2015 by Ricochet Media

Those who pay attention to what politicians say are familiar with the ambiguous way many of them prefer to speak on certain issues. That might be why it’s almost refreshing to hear the unrestrained racism coming out of the Harper Conservatives these days, most of which is directed at Canada’s Muslim population.

Anti-Muslim sentiment has always been part of the Conservatives’ strategy to galvanize their political base, and they’ve recently taken it up a notch in anticipation of this year’s elections. The current administration also has a vested interested in demonizing Muslims since curbing “Islamic extremism” is cited as a top reason for Bill C-51 (the Anti-terrorism Act), perhaps the Conservatives’ worst national security proposal since 9/11.

Muslim groups speaking out against the bill and a large chorus of critics, including Canada’s Harper-appointed privacy commissioner, have been met with open slander that conjures up memories of Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s.

When Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, gave expert testimony in Ottawa last week on C-51, he probably didn’t expect veteran Tory MP Diane Ablonczy of Calgary–Nose Hill to ask him to address “a continuing series of allegations” that the Council supports terrorism. But she did, by echoing a load of spurious allegations against the Council that originated last year from Harper’s spokesperson Jason MacDonald. Gardee pushed back, having to defend his group’s reputation at a hearing to which he was invited to speak on the bill. The Council is currently pursuing a lawsuit against Harper and MacDonald.

Yet the Conservatives seem to want to make a real habit out of this kind of politicking, and Muslims aren’t their only targets. Just ask Greenpeace Canada, whose executive director, Joanne Kerr, had to endure the followingquery from Conservative MP Lavar Payne. “The purpose of the act is sharing for national security threats, so it makes me wonder if your organization is a national security threat?” In other words, The bill is meant to stop terrorists, so are you opposing it because you’re a terrorist?

Payne’s questions ran out the clock on the allotted question-and-response time, leaving Kerr no time to answer. Even if she had responded, she would have had to take the time to address the insinuation that Greenpeace Canada opposes the bill because they’re a threat to national security. The BC Civil Liberties Association experienced a similar exchange with Tory MP Rick Norlock, who essentially asked the association’s senior counsel Carmen Cheung if her organization is “fundamentally opposed” to fighting terrorism, since Cheung had the gall to criticize the bill’s lack of checks and balances.

The skillful tagging of Bill C-51’s critics with unfounded and unfair accusations is the Harper Conservatives’ political bread and butter. It’s also the very definition of 21st-century McCarthyism, exercised in a way that deflects the conversation away from the matter at hand or plummeting public support for the bill. Tory MPs used the tactic to such an extent during last week’s hearings that opposition MP Megan Leslie of the NDP got up in Parliament last Friday to ask Ablonczy to apologize for her “disgraceful behaviour.” Of course, Leslie was promptly ignored.

It’s what Canadians should come to expect from the current administration, who have made it quite clear by now that political expediency trumps all else. Heading into last week’s expert testimony sessions, Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney referred to those testifying against some of the bill’s provisions as “so-called experts.” These “so-called experts” just so happen to be joined in their opposition to C-51 by former officials of CSIS, Canada’s spy agency, whose powers will be expanded if the bill is passed. Also in opposition are four former prime ministers: Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, Paul Martin, and John Turner. All fear that the bill will open doors to abuse.

The most thorough analysis of the bill, conducted by University of Toronto scholar Kent Roach and his colleague Craig Forcese at the University of Ottawa, echo these concerns. The two have put together several backgroundersthat dissect the bill, concluding that many provisions are essentially anti-privacy and threaten to trample all over the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The bill will allow authorities to arrest people more easily, CSIS to morph into a secret police force (in the words of the Globe and Mail editorial board), and at least 17 federal agencies to share private citizen information with each other in unprecedented ways, all at a time when heavy-handed security laws have not been proven by anyone to prevent terrorism in a substantial way.

The Conservatives are rushing C-51 through the legislative process with little critical evaluation. Of course, this is by design. The bill’s proponents, including the Liberal Party, have already expanded a bloated security apparatus by passing bills C-13 and C-44, but C-51 may be the worst yet. The post-9/11 era has always been an era of fear — but it’s fear of overzealous governments that truly stands out.

Photo credit: Rally protesting Harper’s C-51 anti-terrorist legislation in Toronto, City Hall, March 14, 2015/CC

[https://ricochet.media/en/357/conservatives-resort-to-mccarthyism-as-criticism-of-bill-c-51-escalates]

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international affairs, muslims, politics, war on terror

Canada doesn’t need a US-style surveillance state

Published by Al Jazeera America on March 13th, 2015

Thanks to leaks by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know that the modern U.S. security state makes Big Brother from George Orwell’s “1984” look quaint. Thanks to the Conservative administration of Stephen Harper, Canada is heading quickly in the same direction. Bill C-51, currently under debate in Parliament, represents the most sweeping threat to Canadian civil liberties yet.

The Tories have long emphasized the danger of domestic terrorism, but there is little evidence that Canada faces an imminent threat. And only six Muslims were involved in planning terrorism on U.S. soil in 2014, the fewest since 2008. The exact figures for Canada are unknown, but they are almost certainly even lower.

The government’s actual motivation appears to be political opportunism. Last fall, polls showed Harper and the Conservatives badly trailing Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party. Then in October, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a troubled Quebec Muslim man, killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Later that month, Martin Rouleau killed a soldier in Quebec. Harper wasted no time in announcing that his administration would quickly pass laws to bolster public safety. Since then, his position in the polls has improved steadily.

C-51 is only the latest step in the expansion of Canada’s security state. In 2011 alone, federal agencies made more than 1 million requests to acquire private user data from Canadian telecommunication companies. The Snowden archive shows that Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) has been spying on people in Canadathrough airport Wi-Fi. In December, Bill C-13 became law, allowing police easier access to private transmission data and tracking data. Though it is known popularly as the cyberbullying bill, only a negligible fraction of C-13 refers to the issue; the bulk of it has to do with lawful access. Another piece of legislation now making its way through the legislative process proposes that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) be allowed to operate beyond Canada’s borders.

Bill C-51 seeks to expand state power even further. It would criminalize online speech that “promotes” terrorism, lower the threshold for making preventive arrests and expand the CSIS from an intelligence-gathering entity into what the Globe and Mail calls a “secret police force.” The language around these newly proposed powers for CSIS is quite vague, centering on allowing the agency to “disrupt” operations it finds problematic. The bill also includes the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act, which would enable at least 17 government agencies to share information for an incredibly broad range of reasons, most of which have little to do with terrorism.

Current safeguards against invasion of privacy (which date to the 1983 Privacy Act) are no match for such a rapidly expanding surveillance state. Even critics in the government have recognized the need for more oversight. Four former prime ministers, in addition to numerous civil society groups, have warned against the passage of Bill C-51. Even former CSIS Chief Geoffrey O’Brian has voiced his concerns. But the Conservatives put an end to the first round of debate regarding the bill after only a few hours. With a majority in Parliament, they are poised to pass the act in the coming months.

The problem of terrorism deserves attention. But there is little evidence that drastic expansion of police and spying powers would make Canada more secure. After the Snowden leaks in 2013, a New America Foundation study found that bulk collection of metadata contributed to just four of the 225 post-9/11 terrorism cases that ended in arrest or conviction. The study concludes that the U.S. government’s claim that such surveillance is necessary is “overblown and even misleading.”

If given new powers, security forces will likely alienate Muslim communities by encroaching on their civil liberties. This would play into the hands of violent extremists who propagate the narrative that Canada and the rest of the West are obsessed with destroying Islam. It would also make work harder for law enforcement, which relies on cooperation with community members and leaders to identify terrorist threats. The Harper administration’s extreme anti-terrorism policies threaten both privacy and safety. Canada needs a robust public debate to challenge the unexamined ideology of the security state.

Photo: Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Quebec Chamber of Commerce/CC

[http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/3/canada-doesnt-need-a-us-style-surveillance-state.html]

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muslims, politics, war on terror

Death and Reporting for Chapel Hill

Published by The Islamic Monthly on February 11th, 2015

That The Independent of Britain had a long article on what happened last night in Chapel Hill, North Carolina before any major U.S. outlet made mention of the incident is a good reflection of how the “mainstream” media works these days. Their subsequent framing of what happened is perhaps more indicative of how prevailing assumptions and orthodoxies influence the way such events are talked about in the post-9/11 era.

The cold-blooded murder of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, was announced by local police in a statement that revealed their names a few hours after the initial pronouncement. In that time, several local media outlets (WRAL, etc.) were already on the case, and the crux of what happened was relatively clear before the sun rose this morning.

A 46-year-old neighbor of the deceased by the name of Craig Stephen Hicks turned himself in last night to local authorities, confessing to shooting all three victims in the head. The dead were all university students at the University of North Carolina, and a Facebook page called “Our Three Winners” has since been made, presumably by family members, to honor their memory. The first post seems to have been made not so long after midnight last night. Thousands of people already “liked” the page (it now has over 53,000 “likes”) before “breaking news” outlets even tweeted about the murders this morning. For example, the Twitter account for CNN Breaking (@cnnbrk) tweeted about the incident at around 5:30am this morning. That hardly counts as “breaking.”

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Murders like this happen in the United States all the time, and I’ve had several discussions with reporters and observers alike on social media, who note that it takes time for local news like this to catch on, and for national media to decide on whether such an incident is worthy of coverage. There’s no doubt in my mind, having worked in the world mainstream news, that systemic constraints are present within major media outlets to filter out the newsworthy from the negligible. Nonetheless, that the #ChapelHillShooting was worthy of serious scrutiny by the media was made abundantly clear relatively early. The national media would have done well to pay attention to how the Western Muslim communities were reacting to what happened. Social media was abuzz with comments on the murders, while criticisms of mainstream neglect were expressed, among other ways, in cartoon form before the national media seemed to have caught on. In short, I think it’s fair to say that major broadcasters and papers could’ve been a bit faster on this one, and one wonders how their news-sense would’ve buzzed had the perpetrators been Muslims, and the victims been, say, a white family.

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Hicks is a self-identifying atheist, and is being held on three counts of first-degree murder without bond. Here’s one of his online posts, which has been shared widely on the Internet: “When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I.” That’s about as suspicious and ideologically-charged a statement I can think of (and it’s not the only one). I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone who wants to view the incident in light of such a comment. In fact, the police are doing the same thing as they consider the “possibility that this was hate-motivated.”

Still, notice the framing here. Consider the fact that the police and several major outlets have led with their description of the murders as having possibly been motivated by a “dispute over parking.” The police say that this is one of the possible factors influencing a crime that may also include a hate bias. Fair enough, but nowhere in the national, public sphere does one notice any inclination from agenda-setting outlets to report or portray Hicks’ alleged crime as motivated first-and-foremost by ideology or the extremist versions of atheism. No one’s reporting any protests being planned in front of Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins’ homes. The public is much more cautious to mention the possibility of a parking dispute, or perhaps to note that we shouldn’t rule out factors like mental health, etc.

Now contrast this prevailing approach to the way much of the “mainstream” media reports on Muslim extremism in the post-9/11 era. There’s hardly any caution or nuance when it comes to contextualizing the perpetrators’ actions with anything more than oxymoronic labels like “Islamic terrorism.” The implicit (and sometime explicit, depending on who you read), assumption is that violence and Muslims go together like two peas in a pod, that the latter is a natural generator of the former since Islam is intrinsically violent. If a Muslim gunman broke into a white family’s home and shot three of them dead, I imagine no one would fixate much on the parking spat.

These are all signs of the times we live in. Here in Toronto, Canada, I flip through the photos uploaded online of the deceased, and find it hard not to see their faces among the Muslims I know. Their presence could’ve been lifted from any Muslim community in the West, trying to keep themselves cogent in a post-9/11 atmosphere of mistrust, misunderstanding, and misinformation. The way that their deaths have been discussed and portrayed should serve to remind us that Muslims today don’t live in neutral times. Perhaps we can take note of their tragedy, and remind ourselves to look out for one another in these dark hours.

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/death-and-reporting-for-chapel-hill/]

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